Emmy Nöther

Emmy Nother

born: March 23, 1882 in Germany
died: April 14, 1935 in America

She was the most creative abstract algebraist in the world.
(E. T. Bell)

In the realm of (abstract) algebra in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present younger generation of mathematicians.
(Albert Einstein)

Died suddenly at the peak of her mathematical power. Published 37 papers. Perhaps the greatest woman mathematician ever.
Emmy was born in the small university town of Erlangen in southern Germany where her father was a professor of mathematics. She had a very typical childhood for a girl of that time and place: cooking, shopping, dancing and flirting. But she also developed a powerful attachment to mathematics and was tutored by professors at the university. Nöther wrote a doctoral thesis, “On Complete Systems of Invariants for Ternary Biquadratic Forms,” and received her doctorate in 1907. She remained in Erlangen and led a quiet life, sometimes lecturing at the university and substituting for her father when he was ill.

After Emmy’s father retired and her mother died, David Hilbert persuaded Nöther to move to Göttingen, then the center of the world for mathematical and physics research, to work with himself and Felix Klein on the theory of invariants and the mathematical foundations of the theory of relativity. Hilbert tried to get her appointed as an academic lecturer at the university, but the philosophers and historians on the faculty (the humanists?) adamantly opposed women faculty: “What will our soldiers think when they return to the University and find that they are expected to learn at the feet of a woman?” Nöther was not officially appointed to the faculty until 1922, but in the meantime she and Hilbert managed to get around the problem. Courses were offered by Hilbert, but Nöther actually gave the lectures.

Nöther had a strong interest in and a powerful influence on the application of the axiomatic method to mathematics, and she was a force which altered how mathematicians viewed abstract algebra. She authored and co-authored papers on differential operators, structures of non-commutative (ab not equal to ba) algebras, algebraic number fields, and several related topics.

Her lectures were less formal than the German tradition, and she is fondly remembered as an effective and innovative teacher. She was stimulating and original and very willing to share her ideas with students and colleagues. In her teaching and her life, she cared about substance rather than form.

Nöther worked at the highest levels in some of the most abstract and “coldest” areas of mathematics while remaining a thoroughly warm human being, a definite contrast to some other great mathematicians. Her years at Göttingen were spent teaching, discussing and doing mathematics, activities she clearly loved. Nöther was never involved with politics but she was concerned with the social and political problems of Germany, and after the First World War she became, and remained, a pacifist.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Nöther had three strikes against her: she was an intellectual woman, a Jew, and a liberal. She and many other scholars were forced to leave the universities there. Emmy and her brother Fritz, an applied mathematician, were fortunate to find other jobs. Fritz found a position at a research institute in Siberia, and in 1933 Emmy became a professor at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania. She got to work with students and pleasant colleagues again and to do mathematical research. She lectured at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and began to rebuild her life. But the American chapter of her life only lasted a year and a half. At 53 years old she died very suddenly following an operation.

She was a rough and simple soul, but her heart was in the right place. Her frankness was never offensive in the least degree. She possessed a rare humor and a sense of sociability; a tea in her apartments could be most pleasurable. The memory of her work in science and of her personality among her fellows will not soon pass away.
(from her eulogy by Hermann Weyl, a friend and mathematician)

Condensed from Women in Mathematics by Lynn M. Olsen, MIT Press, 1974, pp 141-152. DTH

Last Updated February 7, 2022